Wild-card weekend was very exciting -- we saw two upsets, the highest TV ratings in 10 years, and a playoff record for most points in one game. There were outstanding individual performances by young players such as Ray Rice, Jermichael Finley and Felix Jones, as well as veterans such as Kurt Warner and Tony Romo.
Most people feel the divisional playoff weekend may be the best, most exciting football weekend of the year, with eight very good teams playing for the right to advance in the dash for cash.
As we look at these games, remember that home-field advantage means about the same as it did last week. And it simply is not what it used to be. The home teams went 2-2 in the wild-card games.
Arizona at New Orleans
This is the first playoff meeting between these teams, and there's not a lot of history between them overall. They have alternated wins in the last six meetings, and the Cardinals have won 13 of 25 all-time. Both teams love to pass. New Orleans averaged 272 passing yards per game this season, while Arizona averaged 251.
Arizona CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs.
New Orleans WR Marques Colston
Rodgers-Cromartie is a second-year player, who was selected to play in this year's Pro Bowl after notching six interceptions. He added another Sunday vs. Green Bay. His coming-out party took place last year in a playoff win over Carolina, when he shut down Steve Smith for three quarters. Rodgers-Cromartie is tall, with world-class speed. He's very good at closing on receivers, has long arms with good body control. He can turn and run with receivers, and is a good tackler.
No player in NFL history has caught more passes in his first two seasons (168) than Colston. This year, Colston is the Saints' leading receiver, averaging 15.3 yards on 70 catches with nine touchdowns. He has great size, and he ran a 4.53 at the 2006 combine at 225 pounds. He is a physical player that has deceptive speed for his size and position. He knows how to use his body against defenders to get position and make catches. He has good jumping ability as well as strength to get off press coverage. Colston is not afraid to make catches over the middle. He has good hands, but will drop passes from time to time.
Arizona QB Kurt Warner vs.
New Orleans S Darren Sharper
Warner is one of just two players to throw 100 TD passes for two different teams, and he is playing at a very high level after turning in one of the greatest playoff performances in NFL history last week (29 of 33 for 379 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions). And to think, he did that without Anquan Boldin. Warner still gets the ball out quickly, and still has zip and great timing on deep throws. He put on a clinic vs. Green Bay, which was fifth overall in passing yards allowed and had 30 interceptions.
Sharper is a 13-year veteran, who will be playing in his fifth Pro Bowl this year. He is a classic free safety, who will get the Saints defensive backs lined up correctly and will then try to fool Warner. He has very good hands, and will intercept almost anything he gets his hands on. He has great awareness and instincts. When he guesses, he is usually right. Sharper is a very smooth player, who had nine interceptions in 2009, returning three for TDs. He has 63 career regular-season interceptions.
Baltimore at Indianapolis
From 1953-83, the Colts represented the city of Baltimore in the NFL. After the '83 season, they moved to Indianapolis, leaving Baltimore without a team until the Ravens showed up in 1996. These teams have played one playoff game, in 2006, with the Colts winning, 15-6. They played earlier this year and the Colts won, 17-15, on a field goal by former Ravens kicker Matt Stover. The Colts lead the all-time series, 8-2 (including the above playoff game), and the Ravens have never won in Indianapolis.
Baltimore RB Ray Rice vs.
Indianapolis LB Gary Brackett
Rice is a second-year player, who was selected to the Pro Bowl this season. Last week, Rice had the second-longest run in playoff history when he went 83 yards fo a TD on the first play from scrimmage (Fred Taylor owns the record with a 90-yard run vs. Miami). Rice finished against New England with 159 yards on 22 carries. I would think Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will attempt to run vs. Indy and try to shorten the game as much as possible. Rice is a matchup problem because of his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. He has great vision as a runner, and is also a good pass protector.
Brackett plays on all downs, and is involved in getting the front seven lined up correctly. He is a good athlete with the speed and quickness to make plays. He's at his best when he can have free access in space and not have to take on linemen. He is very aware of all his fits, has excellent lateral ability to make plays and is a very explosive tackler. He is the second-leading tackler on the team.
Baltimore S Ed Reed vs.
Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning
Reed missed four games in the regular season, but returned for the last two. He had an interception on a tipped ball vs. New England last week. Reed is a dynamic player and one of the best safeties in the NFL the last eight years. He sets the tone for Baltimore's defense, is strong, has great anticipation and makes big plays. He is very smart.
Manning was selected MVP this season for the fourth time. He has unbelievable accuracy with the football, putting it on the money 90 percent of the time. He's not as good vs. 3-4 teams, because the offensive tackles are on an island, creating a little more pressure on Manning. That said, edge pressure doesn't bother Manning as much as it does other quarterbacks, because he moves up in the pocket well. Manning passed for 4,500 yards with a 99.9 passer rating, and he's over 50,000 yards for his career.
Dallas at Minnesota
There is a lot of postseason history between these teams, most notably the famous Hail Mary game in 1975. Dallas has won four of the six playoff meetings, including the 1977 NFC Championship Game. In 26 regular- and post-season games, Dallas has a 14-12 edge but the Vikings have outscored the Cowboys by a single point, 588-587. Minnesota has nine Pro Bowl players, plus the Offensive Rookie of the Year in Percy Harvin.
Dallas OT Flozell Adams vs.
Minnesota DE Jared Allen
Adams, who played well last week vs. Trent Cole of the Eagles, has never faced Allen in his career. Adams is a big man with long arms and good feet. He is very good in pass protection. However, because of hearing problems, he has trouble on the road in loud, indoor stadiums. And the Metrodome is loud.
Allen is a sixth-year player in his second year with the Vikings. He has 72 career sacks, including 14.5 this year. Of the 14.5, 9.5 came at home, where the noise helps defensive linemen. Allen's motor goes all day long. He's not pretty, but has the skill to come off blocks and the quickness to get into gaps. He's an excellent tackler, who will bring down the quarterback once he gets his hands on him. He doesn't miss. His favorite moves are a quick rush to the edge and an edge rush with a surge inside. If you don't control him, he can destroy your game plan.
Dallas CB Mike Jenkins vs.
Minnesota WR Sidney Rice
Jenkins is a second-year player, who has overtaken Terence Newman as the team's best cover corner. He had five interceptions and 19 passes defensed in 2009, adding another interception last week in the win over the Eagles. Jenkins ran in the low 4.4s at the combine. He has very good man coverage skills to go along with outstanding closing speed. He's very fast coming out of his break, and has improved a great deal from Week 1 to now. Height difference, however, could hurt vs. Rice, who is five inches taller.
Rice is having a great year with 83 receptions for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns. He seems to have matured as a person this season. Rice is tall (almost 6-foot-4), with real good jumping ability and long arms. He adjusts to the ball well and has good run-after-catch ability. He's not a burner, but has build-up speed. And he has good rapport with Brett Favre, which seems to have helped him this season. He is a great athlete.
N.Y. Jets at San Diego
These teams have met once before in the playoffs, an overtime game won by the Jets, 20-17, at San Diego in 2004. The Jets face a long trip cross-country to San Diego, but they have won in three of their last four trips there. The Jets have three offensive linemen in the Pro Bowl. Their pass defense is ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed.
N.Y. Jets CB Darrelle Revis vs.
San Diego WR Vincent Jackson
Revis, a starting corner in the Pro Bowl, had six interceptions and 31 passes defensed in the regular season. He also had an interception in last week's playoff win at Cincinnati. No receiver has more than 35 receiving yards against him n a game this season. They have a hard time getting separation from him. He plays with a lot of toughness, and is the best cornerback in the NFL at this time. He will most likely be tested this week.
Jackson is having a breakout year, but he was not selected to the Pro Bowl. He had 68 receptions for 1,167 yards (17.2 average), and nine touchdowns. He is their go-to receiver. He has size, almost 6-5 and 230 pounds, good speed and the quickness needed for the position. He is one of the best athletes playing in the NFL. He was a starter on his college basketball team. He is very good at screening defenders and is effective in the red zone because of his height. He's a tough matchup for any corner.
N.Y. Jets RB Shonn Greene vs.
San Diego LB Stephen Cooper
Greene is a first-year player who is backing up Thomas Jones, but he is playing more each week and led the Jets last week with 21 carries for 135 yards. A good runner on grass, he has the ability to break tackles, shows good vision and patience as a runner, and is very strong. He's not a great receiver because of his small hands, but he is a very competitive player.
Cooper is a seventh-year player, who has started at inside linebacker for San Diego the last three years, and is the team's leading tackler over that span with more than 300 tackles. He plays on all downs, and is a smart and very competitive player. He is better vs. run than the pass in space.